For women in England and Wales, `safety in custody’ means self-harm

Quarterly 12-month rolling rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners by gender of establishment, 12 months ending September 2010 to 12 months ending September 2020

On Thursday, January 28, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice issued its Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales: Deaths in Prison Custody to December 2020 Assaults and Self-harm to September 2020. The report is generally grim, and especially so for women. Generally, “In the 12 months to December 2020, there were 318 deaths in prison custody, an increase of 8% from 300 deaths the previous 12 months.” The real story, however, is that of women’s self-harm over the past twelve months: “Self-harm incidents have increased in the female estate and decreased in the male estate from the previous 12-month period: There were 58,870 self-harm incidents in the 12 months to September 2020, down 5% from the previous 12 months, comprising a 7% decrease in male establishments and a 8% increase in female establishments. In the most recent quarter there were 14,167 self-harm incidents, up 9% on the previous quarter, comprising a 5% increase in male establishments and a 24% increase in female establishments.”

What’s going on here? On one hand, the expanded and increased isolation, due to the pandemic, has intensified despair. As Dr. Kate Paradine, CEO of Women in Prison, explained, “Many women haven’t seen their families in person for over a year, and are confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. It doesn’t have to be like this – the Government can honor its promise and resume its early release scheme allowing women to safely isolate in the community.”

But Covid-19 is only part of the story. Here’s the report from the same Ministry of Justice a year earlier, Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales: Deaths in Prison Custody to March 2020 Assaults and Self-harm to December 2019: “Self-harm incidents reached a record high of 63,328 incidents in the 12 months to December 2019, up 14% from the previous 12 months … Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender.” Where male prisoners suffered 650 incidents of self-harm per 1000 prisoners, female prisoners suffered 3,130 self-harm `events’ per 1000 women prisoners, and that was an increase of 16% from the previous twelve months.

The Safety in Custody report for the year before, to December 2018: “Self-harm incidents reached a record high of 55,598 incidents in 2018, a 25% increase from 2017.” The rate of self-harm among women prisoners that year was 2,675 per 1000, “an increase of 24% in the number of incidents from the previous year.”

The Safety in Custody report for the year before that, to December 2017: “In the 12 months to December 2017, there were 44,651 incidents of self-harm, up 11% from the previous year. The number of self- harming individuals increased by 6% to a new record high of 11,630.” The rate of self-harm among women prisoners that year was 2,093 per 1,000, “an increase of 8% in the number of incidents from the previous year.”

Want to know what this year’s report said? “Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender. The number of incidents in male establishments decreased by 7% … to September 2019 to 46,427 in the 12 months to September 2020. The number of incidents in the female estate increased 8% … to 12,443. On a quarterly basis, the number of incidents in the three months to September 2020 increased by 5% in male establishments compared with the previous three months and increased by 24% in female establishments. The rate of incidents … was 595 incidents per 1,000 prisoners in the male estate …. The rate of incidents in female establishments was far higher, and increased by 18%, from 3,016 in the previous 12 months to 3,557 in the latest 12 months.”

What is the point of calling these “safety in custody” when every single year, the rates of self-harm for women rise and the State trots out the same phrase, “Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender.” Perhaps the point is that, for women, safety in custody, like protection, means self-harm, means there will be a performance of collecting data but really no one in charge gives a damn, or worse, cares only to inflict harm, means there is no justice as long as prisons are held sacred by the State. How is the State responding to its own report of women’s self-harm `in custody’? On Saturday, January 23, it announced a plan to build 500 prison places, for the sake of women’s safety

by Dan Moshenberg

(Infographic: UK Ministry of Justice)